One of my favorite Howard Thurman books is Meditations of the Heart. It was the first of his more than 20 books that I purchased which I gave to my husband as a present. But then I started reading it and knew that I wanted to know more about this profound man and his life. The meditations spoke to the core of my being as Howard Thurman asks his readers to ponder more deeply what is at the heart of our daily living. Are we willing to open our hearts and listen more deeply to the call of the Eternal?
As a spiritual director/companion and retreat leader I am often asked what drew me to the spiritual path after leading a life as a driven, tough, no nonsense professor and college administrator. I’d been interested in spirituality since I was first introduced to meditation in college. Like Howard Thurman, I realized that I was enamored with silence, stillness and solitude and understood that my spirituality was flavored with a contemplative bent.
Despite my spiritual inclinations, my life was dominated by a strong, competitive, type A ego. In the midst of my drive to achieve fame in the field of psychology, at age 40 I was catapulted into a physical and spiritual crisis. The diagnosis that a lifelong heart condition had become a life-threatening cardiomyopathy and required a heart transplant triggered the terror which lies in every ego and sparked my spirit simultaneously. What aided my survival was a re-focus toward inner listening. This shift manifested as a series of conversations with my old and new hearts as I traversed the unknown and frightening world of a heart transplant recipient.
It all began when I sought therapy because the symptoms of heart failure—shortness of breath, fatigue, swollen ankles, weight loss began to permeate my life. I could no longer deny that my body was deteriorating. My therapist who specialized in clients with chronic health conditions and whose approach tended to be eclectic suggested that I utilize a Jungian technique labeled “active imagination” and talk with my heart.
What I imagined would be a solo conversation evolved into twenty-two months of conversations with my hearts—the old one that I lost and the new one that I gained with a transplant. Their guidance was unparalleled as I rode a real life roller coaster. Despite the fact that I wrote these dialogues to maintain my own sanity, I shared them with a few friends who urged me to distribute them more widely by writing a book. Perhaps others could benefit from my suffering as well as my triumphs.
The conversations in When the Heart Speaks, Listen-Discovering Inner Wisdom showed me how to uncover the peace and joy in my heart similar to the deep peace and joy I feel when reading Howard Thurman’s Meditations of the Heart. With both books, there is an invitation to engage in deep inner listening each pointing to a heart that is always available for solace, guidance, consolation and wisdom. As Thurman writes, “In the stillness of the quiet, if we listen, we can hear the whisper of the heart giving strength to weakness, courage to fear, hope to despair.” I hope both of these books will inspire you to listen and talk with your heart so you too can uncover more of the peace and joy that lies within.
When the Heart Speaks, Listen—Discovering Inner Wisdom and Meditations of the Heart are available online at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Books A Million and can also be ordered through your favorite independent book seller.
Read about how I survived a heart transplant 24 years ago by talking with and listening to my heart.
What people are saying about this book:
“Lerita Coleman Brown gave me both a unique biographical thriller and valuable psychological and spiritual insights in this book. The “thriller” is not knowing what will happen next as she took me step by step through her experience of receiving a heart transplant, and its impact on her life. The insights come from her honest and sometimes humorous dialogues with both her old and her new heart, leading to her advocacy for the reader to pause daily and listen to the deep wisdom and love that our hearts can show us. That listening helps to free us from the dominance of our ego-centered emotions, such as anger, resentment, depression, anxiety, jealousy and fear. The reflection questions along the way gave me an opportunity to examine my own psychological and spiritual experience. I think many readers will find this book both a delight and a helpful guide to truer and fuller personal living.”
Rev. Tilden Edwards, PhD, Founder and Senior Fellow, Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation, author of numerous books.
“In When the Heart Speaks, Listen, Lerita Coleman Brown has given us a rare gift indeed for she has allowed us to join her on a spiritual journey that is both fraught with danger and, ultimately, thoroughly transformative. Both figuratively and literally, Brown had to let go of her old heart and find a way to accept and to live with a new one. This intimate and innovative memoir about what constitutes true holistic healing will leave one moved, enlightened and profoundly inspired.”
Jan Willis, Ph.D., Professor Emerita of Religious Studies, Wesleyan University and author of Dreaming Me: Black, Baptist and Buddhist
Lerita is courageous–literally. Her willingness to share these conversations with her hearts–both of them–left me awestruck. I read this book through tears as my own heart vibrated at the lessons I need to learn in my own life. There is Truth in this book. Be prepared. You will be transformed.
Rev. Dr. Stuart Higginbotham, Rector, Grace Episcopal Church and co-editor of the upcoming book, Contemplation and Community.
“Down through the ages, philosophers, mystics and psychologists have proposed any number of conceptualizations of the elaborate interconnections between the human mind, body and spirit. For Dr. Lerita Coleman Brown, however, these dynamic interconnections are beyond theoretical; they are vibrantly real. Dr. Brown has facilitated regular conversations between her own mind, body and soul throughout her 24-year experience as an organ transplant survivor. The result has taken her beyond mere survival to the construction of a beautifully spiritual and meaningful life. In When the Heart Speaks, Listen she shares her remarkable and unique experience with all of us. What a wonderful gift!”
Arthur C. Jones, Ph.D., Clinical psychologist, professor, author of “Wade in the Water: The Wisdom of the Spirituals and Founder of the Spirituals Project.
“Captivating!! In speaking from the heart, Lerita Coleman Brown provides readers with a gift: the roadmap for how to open your heart. She shares her inspiring story of triumph over adversity and all odds, to source true meaning, divine purpose, love, and heartfelt connection.”
Beth Darnall, Ph.D., Clinical Professor, Stanford University School of Medicine, author ofThe Opioid-Free Pain Relief Kit, Less Pain, Fewer Pills, and Psychological Treatment for Chronic Pain.
“For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.”
A jumble of thoughts awaken me each morning in the past few weeks as I seek to listen in silence for my response to the current migrant-refugee family crisis, not only in the United States but worldwide. As I dipped in and out of the news recently (a steady dose feels too toxic), I found myself nauseated. The aching in my heart has not left. To see innocent, unknowing children being taken from their mothers and fathers, to hear the cries of babies and young children in shock wondering what happened to their families, to the familiar, shakes my soul. I wondered what was the purpose of traumatizing children as adults fought over their family’s fate.
In the next moment I think back to the fall semester of my junior year in college. I’m sitting in a physics class and wondering why I enrolled in it. I had long since disabused myself of any desires to attend medical school. That fantasy flew from my sleepy first year head as I watched televised lectures of biology 101 in my friend, Linda’s dorm room. My small group of friends and I gathered together each Monday, Wednesday and Fridays at 8:00 am knowing that one of us would be snoring in the first 10 minutes. I slept more than I absorbed the basic foundations of biology. I reflected later that completing one semester each of biology and physics was one in a collection of symbols of my decade long struggle to prove myself. Although I wasn’t nearly as excited about physics as psychology some information remained with me. One piece was Newton’s third law of motion—for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.
I selected this law, modified it by being the opposing reaction. Then I intentionally applied it to many things—exercise, health, psychological dueling with others, even writing. It seems that every time I attempt to push through the endless obstacles toward a disciplined writing schedule, for example, the resistance slaps me back in the face. I persist through the feelings of immobilization to counter this reaction.
I also utilize this construct in a positive way in my spiritual life. For every negative or unloving act I observe, I deliberately perform a loving or positive act. I think of it as—fighting darkness with LIGHT. Each time I observe someone engage in an activity that lacks empathy and compassion, I hear a more powerful call to double down on love and mercy. Yes, my new adage is “Double-down on love.”
I understand the feelings of helplessness that come from viewing these tragedies play out in the daily news and on social media. Yet there are so many moments during the course of a day that provide opportunities to express sensitivity. Maybe a person cuts me off on the highway, or the receptionist at the doctor’s office acts rude or indifferent. Rather than respond to a driver with an ugly gesture or act rude in return, I smile, bless them with kindness and gentleness instead.
I am so moved by the news of people countering unloving behavior with loving acts. My favorite couple of the year, Charlotte and Dave Willner, feeling powerless about the fate of the separated children, raised over 20 millions dollars for RAICES, a legal fund for migrant families. One of my retired colleagues chose to help two women in her retirement home who were without legal status. From her walker, Barbara relentlessly called friends and lawyers until these two women received their green cards. There are many churches who for a number of years have offered sanctuary to immigrant and refugee families. This reminds me of chain transplants also known as organ paired donations, a movement that has grown in popularity. There are endless chances to pay it forward encouraging a contagion of love.
Great good can emerge from cruelty and callousness. I believe response to FEAR (and isn’t that at the core of the crisis) with LOVE. It may sound counter-intuitive but I’ve always believed the Biblical passage, “Perfect love casts out fear,” (John 4:18 ). You can extinguish darkness with light. But the opposite is never true. You cannot eradicate light with darkness. Although dimmed temporarily, light triumphs over darkness every time. However, when I walk into an unlit room, rather than fear the darkness, I must engage in the action of turning on the light.
What kind of loving acts can you counter fear with or pay forward? In what ways will you bring light and love to those who feel as if they are stuck on the bottom of a barrel of darkness? On your spiritual journey would doubling down on love help to uncover more of the peace and joy in your heart?
No copyright infringement intended on the helping hands image.
Sometimes, winter, a season filled with mostly grey skies and bare trees evokes a sense of gloom. This time of shadowy days matched my mood as the new year began. I spent New Year’s Eve in a hospital room. I felt deflated as I watched television—the ball drop, people kissing and champagne flowing from bottles. Unfortunately, my formal wear for the evening was a hospital gown accessorized with an IV. No matter where I looked, I couldn’t generate the exuberance that is often associated with New Year’s.
I complained bitterly about the uncomfortable bed and the constant interruptions often during the middle of the night—to take blood or check my vitals. Frequently, like an apparition, a strange voice barked through the intercom awakening me during my futile attempts to sleep. Apparently crossed up telemetry wires led the voice to inquire loudly, “Is anyone there?” rather than directing a nurse or nursing assistant to check on me. I wondered how I would ever recover from the awful cold virus that held my body hostage if I was getting only 2-3 hours of sleep each night. As I continued to ruminate about my state of discontent and medically unnecessary hospital stay, my young African American evening nurse offered another perspective with her response, “But we would have never met and we wouldn’t have all the conversations that I needed so badly.”
Surprised and shocked, my mind quieted. Deep below the chatter of my petulant complaints a small voice added, “Maybe this trip to the hospital isn’t just about you. It could be serving a larger purpose.” I thought back to my older, Euro American daytime nurse and our discussions around her potential retirement. When I mentioned that I had stopped working nearly five years ago, she brightened when I suggested the book, The Third Chapter: Passion, Risk and Adventure in the 25 Years After 50 by Sarah Lawrence-Lightfoot. “I am going online and download it tonight,” she noted. “I am really struggling with this decision and I think reading that book will help me out.” Here was another exchange that would not have occurred if I had not been admitted to the hospital.
My next opportunity to express my dissatisfaction came when wrapped in several sheets and a blanket I sat shivering in a wheel chair outside one of the echocardiogram rooms. Inwardly I wailed about how my miserable cold landed me in the hospital for two and a half days for an echocardiogram! My inner agitation added to the chill in the air. I asked myself, as the standard issued hospital gown with hospital socks and the blanket began quickly losing their heat, “Why aren’t they taking me, what is the delay?” Then it occurred to me that the staff might be working with a patient much sicker than me. After all, I could walk around and although I suffered with a very bad cold, I wasn’t short of breath or retaining fluids. Besides, I was going home in a few hours so what was the rush? Once again, I remembered that the current situation wasn’t just about me.
As I moved back into my own bed at home with many more days to recover, in the silence that surrounded me I began to reflect on how often I, like many others, focus mostly on myself; on my schedule, my life, and my family. I frequently observe drivers swerving in and out of lanes, causing others to brake suddenly so they can arrive at church “on time.” I am guilty as well of rushing to arrive at a doctor’s appointment only to sit in a waiting room for 10-20 minutes. Like my compatriots, I stand impatiently in the grocery store checkout line, or at the post office, thinking about the time I am wasting. And to what purpose I ask inwardly would I devote this precious lost time if I could regain it? Would it be used to sit with a sick friend or spend more time on Instagram or Facebook, to bake dinner for the widow next door or binge watch the latest popular television show? Had I ever thought to surrender in any given moment my nicely covered egocentrism in favor of a plan that worked best for everyone, for people that I may not even know?
I pondered about how I arrived at this place on my journey where my desires reign supreme and occupy my mind throughout the day. Reflecting on my past, I remember being more thoughtful as a child, helping mostly my Mom by starting or cooking dinner for my family, a unit that operated best when everyone worked together. My family served as a microcosm for the many more communities I would belong to; my classroom where I helped other students with assignments, my school by selling candy to fund field trips, my neighborhood where we took care of each other through crises like job losses, divorces, and deaths, my country by voting and volunteering and my world by praying and lightening my carbon footprint with recycling and using less water. Had I lost this caring spirit that encourages me to move beyond “me” to “we” or does it remain within patiently waiting for an opportunity to emerge?
When I pause and think about how I might move beyond my self-centered motives, or combine what I need with the needs of others, I feel more peace and joy. I also feel a sense of wholeness. Yet I know such thinking and actions require me to surrender my little self to a much larger one.
As the year continues, I hope to inspire others to reflect on the primacy of self sometimes to the detriment of the common good and how different it feels to live from a more expansive life view. I know there is something special about living from an inner sanctuary that allows me to experience how interconnected we are and helps me to feel more Peace and Joy in my heart. What about you, what might you need to surrender to feel more of the Peace and Joy that resides in your heart?
Photo courtesy of Columbus H. Brown, Candid Imagery Fine Arts
There is one lesson I continue to learn over and over again. Seeking answers to the mysteries of life does not have to be complicated or expensive. The great African American theologian and mystic, Dr. Howard Thurman, writes about an oak tree that he turned to again and again for solace and strength. He said he would talk to the oak tree, sharing his triumphs and sorrows with it.
“I needed the strength of that tree, and, like it, I would hold my ground…I cultivated a unique relationship with the tree..I could sit, my back against the trunk, and feel the same peace that would come to me in my bed at night. I could reach down in the quiet places of my spirit, take out my bruises and my joys, unfold them, and talk about them. I could talk aloud to the oak tree and know that it understood. It, too, was a part of my reality, like the woods, the night, and the pounding surf, my earliest companions, giving me space.”
Earlier, biographer, Elizabeth Yates wrote:
“He also learned from the oak tree that despite the tempest or storms, it stood stalwart. Somewhere in life, he reasoned to himself, there was a constancy that was not subject to tempests; but whatever it was, it would not be outside a man but with his spirit. He read that night to his grandmother from the Psalms about a godly man…he shall be like a tree..What was this soil wherein a man’s roots, as those of a tree, could find sure hold?”
As I began to reflect on my own contemplative spiritual journey, I thought about where and when I found renewal and guidance. For many years I chided myself for lacking the desire to take a pilgrimage, to walk the great El Camino, hike the Grand Canyon or walk the shores near Iona, Scotland. Sometimes I need not go any further than my own backyard or bedroom. Below is a description of my spiritual spot, my time and place that is equivalent to Dr. Thurman’s oak tree. It is my bed in the morning wherever I am.
I turned over in my bed just becoming aware of the early morning quiet. Awakening among tossed pillows, sheets, and lightweight blankets always offered a place of strength and solace for me. The tranquility of daybreak reminded me of the times as a child I spent sitting in the wind inhaling the deep peace within it. As, “Little Rita,” my childhood nickname, I didn’t understand why I was so drawn to serenity or that a bed and the daybreak hush would serve as my anchor for an unimaginable life journey.
From morning calm, I donned my uniform to march off to master the discipline of parochial school, and later arose to face a sea of white faces, as the lone brown one in my college classrooms. In the newness of morning, I jumped out of the bed to boldly defend my dissertation, and then later sobbed into its fitted sheets when I realized that my tenure denial wasn’t a dream but a real professional and public humiliation. Still the early morning calm gave birth to the strength and wisdom I needed as a professor to awaken students for more than 30 years. Virgin time and the caress of handmade quilts created a space where I summoned the courage to face a looming heart transplant, and ten years later accepted the diagnosis of renal failure knowing my recovery would require months of dialysis and another transplant. Opening my eyes in great joy, I awoke in the freshness of the day to see my wedding dress hanging across the hotel room, celebrating in my new heart my imminent marriage. After a restless night of grief, I grabbed my teddy bears and tissues, and wailed into the pillows as I felt the sting of being orphaned, now with both parents deceased. In all of these moments, I knew that the constancy of a sturdy bed whether in homes, college dorms, hotels or hospitals, and the Guidance revealed in a touch of morning stillness would steer me through anything.
Howard Thurman found peace and understanding from an old, sturdy oak tree near his home. Memories of times with that tree sustained him throughout his life. For me, I acquire wisdom and courage in bed in morning quiet to walk the spiritual path. Where do you go to refuel, to connect with inner wisdom? When do you pause to capture moments of calm and serenity, and to gather the strength to endure the vicissitudes of life? How can you experience the peace and joy in your heart?
Howard Thurman, With Hand and Heart-The Autobiography of Howard Thurman. New York: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1981, p. 9.
Elizabeth Yates, Howard Thurman: Portrait of a Practical Dreamer. New York: The John Day Company, 1964, p. 30.
“Don’t cry because it is over. Smile because it happened.”
Although the Academy Awards have come and gone, conversations about the Oscars spur me to view as many of the nominated films as I can. However, one of my favorite films last year, Collateral Beauty was not considered for any awards. I didn’t understand the horrible reviews and small audiences for a film with such a profound and deep message. I concluded after a year in which most media outlets devoted their time to trash, to the very base instincts of society, that people are addicted to fear, insults, fake news, and social media overload. Thus, I suspected that Collateral Beauty, a movie that contains no sex or an overabundance of violence (i.e., no kill count), seemed boring to many. Yet when I looked beyond the unrealistic storyline, I found some engaging dialogue and an overall message of love designed to speak to our souls and uplift our spirits.
What is collateral beauty you might ask? I had no idea how the concept was being framed for the movie, in fact I hadn’t thought about what it might mean until the end. I had heard of collateral damage, defined as the ”general term for deaths, injuries, or other damage inflicted on an unintended target.” In military terminology, it is frequently used to account for “the incidental killing or wounding of non-combatants…The unintentional destruction of friendly targets is called friendly fire.”
I’ve always felt, though, that collateral damage is a euphemism designed to distant or distract people from digesting the real death toll and destruction wreaked on the lives of “unintended targets” who find themselves in unwanted wars and physical conflicts. I wonder if people who engage in domestic violence in front of children, or gang members whose bullets miss the intended victim and instead kill or maim a child or elderly person, consider the long-term consequences of the damage they inflict. The deception of describing the loss of innocent life as incidental, just a person at the wrong place and at the wrong time, keeps us all from feeling the brunt of such news.
Given that definition, then, could collateral beauty denote? It is that stubborn new growth that occurs after a fire has destroyed a forest or a community of homes. Sometimes the new growth manifests as the loving actions of those who are moved by a tragedy to offer their help by making meals, bringing clothes, warm blankets, and water to fellow human beings who find themselves in a tragic situation. I find collateral beauty everywhere.
When I think of examples of collateral beauty in my life, my transplants and recovery from various illnesses immediately come to mind. My donor family lost a beloved daughter and sister and in the midst of their grief, they chose to donate a heart, liver, two kidneys, and some cornea that immediately brought new life to five people. One family’s heartbreaking loss became a joy and relief for another. And as I suffered through my recovery, friends, colleagues and new acquaintances emerged from their busy lives to offer prayer, food, company, and rides to and from the transplant clinic. Incredibly, six women from my former support group in Detroit each chose to take vacation time and travel by plane, train and bus to spend a week caring for me after my mother exhausted her unpaid family leave.
Collateral beauty frequently appears during the terminal illness of a loved one. Elizabeth Lesser writes about her experiences of donating bone marrow to her sister in the memoir, Marrow: A Love Story. Lesser describes the poignant healing that came as a result of conversations with her sister which resulted in their reconciliation after a lifetime of conflict. Sometimes collateral beauty appears in just those moments of presence, the baring of souls when people realize that their time together is limited and waning. In essence, collateral beauty is the love that emerges in the midst of devastation, whether it is in the loss of a loved one, destroyed homes, or a tragedy that affects an entire community.
In addition to introducing moviegoers to the notion of collateral beauty, the movie also elicited questions about how do we spend time, what love looks like in our lives, and what does life mean when one realizes their death is inevitable and possibly imminent? Recently I spent a week being present with my older brother who was visiting. We are both older and less physically vibrant than we were a few years ago. He suffers some effects of a stroke he experienced six years ago and I deal with chronic medical issues as a transplant recipient. We shared stories. I cooked for him and we reminisced about the events that bonded us for life. I knew that clearing the calendar and sharing this precious time with him was what love looks like and the best use of our time in the midst of our mutual physical suffering.
It takes time to see collateral beauty and frequently I don’t possess the patience to pause long enough. It requires looking beyond what I see with my eyes or hear with my ears. It allows a glimpse into the often unseen love that permeates all. Wherever there is seeming devastation, there is also collateral beauty—the healing, the joy of what has been, the celebration of a certain heavenliness on earth. If I stop for a moment to savor all of the beauty and goodness of life rather than focusing on what is missing or how I might want it to be, I gain a certain sacred perspective. It reminds me that beauty can be seen in anything as long as I allow my heart to see it, to feel the sadness and the joy, to perceive the whole rather than the fragments.
I believe Howard Thurman would characterize collateral beauty like this:
The seed of the jack pine will not be given up by the cone unless the cone itself is subjected to sustained and concentrated heat…It is not too far afield to suggest that there are things deep within the human spirit that are firmly embedded, dormant, latent, and inactive. These things are always positive, even thought they may be destructive rather than creative. But there they remain until our lives are swept by the forest fire: It may be some mindless tragedy, some violent disclosure of human depravity or some moment of agony in which the whole country or nation be involved. The experience releases something that has been locked up within all through the years. If it be something that calls to the deepest things in life, we, like the jack pine, grow tall and straight against the sky!
Meditations of the Heart, p. 82-83
Where are the moments of collateral beauty in your life? Would pondering such times or being present to others bring you closer to the peace and joy in your heart?
Lately I’ve been pondering what my historical mentor and spiritual guide, Howard Thurman might say as we inaugurate the 45th President of the United States. I suspect he would not be on Twitter or any other social media platform. I don’t think, like me, he would be blogging about it either. But I believe he would have an opinion and perhaps some recommendations about how to live in the current social and political atmosphere.
Dr. Howard Washington Thurman experienced great social transitions in his lifetime. Born in 1899 in Daytona Beach, Florida, Thurman lived through the severity of Jim Crow legal segregation, state sponsored domestic terrorism, and a host of racial insults and indignities. He spoke of the time when he had been invited to give a talk at a major meeting only to learn that hotel would not serve him lunch in its main dining room. Thurman was so enraged that he decided to forego eating and walk through the city instead. I sense that during the walk he heard some of what he would later talk and write about in his classic book, Jesus and the Disinherited. This same book inspired Dr. Martin Luther KingJr., to begin his civil rights work and he carried Jesus and the Disinherited whenever he marched.
In preparing to live through the Inaugural weekend and the days to follow, Howard Thurman would likely advise us to; 1) use our outrage constructively, to better someone else’s lot rather than become bitter. 2) He would discourage the use of violence and instead admonish us to use our energy to educate and enlighten, and to wake up those who sleep in the fog of racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, classism, and materialism. 3) Thurman never thought that changes in laws and social policies meant much if they did not change people’s hearts. He would want sustained, regular exchanges between people who are different because he felt this would create the Beloved Community that he and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., dreamed of.
Howard Thurman knew from spending time with his grandmother, Nancy Ambrose, a former slave, that what sustains people through challenging, difficult and sometimes horrendous conditions is their internalized knowledge that they are holy children of God. He believed this spiritual self is what Jesus was trying to awaken in his own oppressed Jewish people in the hostile Roman society they lived in. Clearly right now in 2017, there are so many who need such an awakening, a shift in personal identity that includes an exploration of a deeper spiritual nature, especially among those who perceive themselves to be powerful as well as those who think of themselves as powerless.
If I were fortunate enough to have lunch today with Howard Thurman, I think he would suggest a few antidotes to the media circus, confusion, and chaos of actual news, fake news, and tweets in lieu of actual conversation. I imagine Thurman would smile and instruct me to be still. Take some pause pockets so I can create a deep, peaceful sanctuary within my mind and heart. Create my own inner retreat, a sacred space that I can return to again and again and again to dim the lights and lower the volume on the cacophony of the outer world.
Next, Thurman would sit back and quietly suggest that I go outside and commune with nature. Certainly walking along a beach, taking in its quiet calm, and watching the birds glide across the azure sky with billowing clouds, or observing how gently snowflakes float to the ground would engender some peace. Feeling the cool breeze and watching the trees sway in the wind, noting their strength even in the midst of storms is how Thurman sensed a Oneness with everything. This connection with the All helped him most when the “tempests of life” as he called them blustered through.
Finally, after finishing a luscious dessert, I suspect Howard Thurman would lean in and remind me to increase my practice of inner authority. Inner authority is just another manifestation of living from a sense of authentic Self; the one God created and a Self deeply embedded in the Presence. Mastery of this principle is vital for people who suffer any form of discrimination, particularly individuals from visible stigmatized groups, because although a body may be assaulted or a mind temporarily disturbed, “The inner sanctuary cannot be breached without consent.” It is only by our own inner authority that we allow it to be disturbed. By being rooted in and living from the Spirit of God, whether that Presence is within us or in nature, one can develop the “authority” to move against oppressive forces in one’s life.* Thurman portrays it best in this short excerpt from his book, Meditations of the Heart.
The Inward Sea
There is in every person an inward sea, and in that
sea there is an island and on that island there is an
altar and standing guard before that altar is the “angel
with the flaming sword.” Nothing can get by that
angel to be placed upon that altar unless it has the
mark of your inner authority. Nothing passes “the
angel with the flaming sword” to be placed upon your
altar unless it be a part of “the fluid area of your consent.”
This is your crucial link with the Eternal. (p. 15)
In summary, Howard Thurman would believe that contemporary times are ostensibly no different from the times he lived in—just the players on the stage have shifted. Even if laws or policies are altered, a real change won’t occur until hearts soften and we learn to embrace each other—enemies and friends—with love and compassion. He would certainly admonish me to pay attention to my thinking, because that determines what I see in the world, and to cultivate a greater rootedness in God rather than putting my faith and power in elected officials.
Howard Thurman would also remind me
to be still and listen each day for what my role is
in the change I wish to see in the world.
I am certain he would know that quiet, inner listening
brings more peace and joy to the heart.
If you would like to spend some solitary and contemplative time, listening and learning about Howard Thurman, visit the Howard Thurman Retreat Day (available online until March 31, 2017), sponsored by the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation. For more information and to register, visit the Shalem website, shalem.org.
*Lerita Coleman Brown, An Ordinary Mystic: Contemplation, Inner Authority, and Spiritual Direction in the Life and Work of Howard Thurman. Presence: An International Journal of Spiritual Direction, 18, 14-22, 2012.
I don’t like the custom of sitting around the holiday table and sharing that for which I am thankful. I always feel self conscious and believe I need to express something spectacular or worth mentioning. Having heat in our home when so many go without shelter or the fact that we can afford to pay the utilities top my list of blessings. The mere fact that I am alive and able to prepare some portion of the meal always seems like an obvious choice for sharing. Yet when it comes to gratitude, I can think of a thousand things a day that inspire my awe and thankfulness. Right now I see remnants of fall, tall oak trees retaining their leaves until new ones buds, shrubs that vary in color from a rosy salmon to deep plum.
I remember many years ago when I was nearing age 40, I decided to throw a party for myself. It had become clear that I needed to learn to celebrate myself instead of bemoaning the fact that no one was surprising me with a celebration. I diligently made a list of about 90 people, some friends, others colleagues to invite. I showed it to my friend, Terry, who smiled and gently said, “Lerita, you cannot fit 90 people in your town home. Why don’t you invite the 40 people who helped you to make it to age 40?” I thought it was a brilliant idea. Thus, a simple and elegant party with friends from my varied life of work, church, sewing, and book club became one of my most treasured memories.
Now that I am past the season that emphasizes shopping and baking I find myself yearning for more simple moments of gratitude. Pausing for some reflection on this and the 22nd Anniversary of my heart transplant, I decided to make a list of the top five people or occasions that fill my heart with joyful appreciation. These are moments of light or enlightened people who brightened me in the darkness and who made me the person I am today. Here is what is on my all time gratitude list.
1) My parents, but not for the typical reason people give. Certainly, I wouldn’t be here without them but I thank my parents most for being so hard-working, devoted to their children, and self sacrificing so my siblings and I could attend Catholic or Christian school. Catholic school is where I learned to be disciplined and to orient my day around the Great Spirit. At an early age and in this setting, I became aware of an unseen but very present Spirit available for comfort and guidance. Thank you Mom and Dad, for all of the financial, physical, and emotional sacrifices. I wish you were still physically present so I could express my thanks with many hugs and kisses.
2) A heart transplant 22 years ago. I cannot think of anything that is more transformative than to face death. I realized that I had to shift from being a driven workaholic to thinking about something and someone other than myself and my career. Despite the terror and outright physical suffering involved, my transplant triggered a spiritual awakening in me that is beyond measure. The trauma demanded that I cultivate trust, create an awareness of the love and care from others and generate in me a totally different way of viewing life. I now understand that life is about forgiveness, healing, love, connection, peace and joy.
3) Fall. The simple, elegant, and natural beauty of fall leaves me in awe each year. It is by far my favorite season (with the exceptional beauty of spring following in second place). Each October-December, I look outside of my bedroom or office window into a yard of varying colors of greens, yellows, browns, and fiery red leaves. The Japanese maple trees were particularly spectacular this fall. So many of them look like they were on fire. I cannot believe that people rush past them or can drive down a tree-lined street without being moved by the colors. Quite frankly, I pause, frequently because I find it disheartening to see something so beautiful without acknowledging its existence. I suspect the same could be said for falling snowflakes and new snow. But there is some special about yellow, orange, and tan leaves across a backdrop of green leaves and forest green pines.
4) My spiritual teachers. I still remember when, Jan Willis (author of Dreaming Me: Black, Baptist and Buddhist—One Woman’s Spiritual Journey) taught my college roommate and me, how to meditate. We didn’t have any idea what we were doing as we sat cross-legged on the floor, with our beads, chanting a Sanskrit mantra for Dorje Sempa, the deity to end all suffering. The practice of finding a way to quiet my mind, whether through chanting, focusing on my breathing or being still, opened me to an entirely new world of readings by wisdom figures from all over the world. Since that time I’ve been moved and blessed by the teachings of Howard Thurman, Thomas Kelly, Rumi, Hafiz, Richard Rohr, Nan Merrill, Joyce Rupp and a host of others. Now when I take my daily quiet time, I read a prayer or inspirational reading in English with the same intention; to heal, to be a healer and to end all suffering in the world.
5) An awareness that there is something more in the world than what I see with my physical eyes. I know there is an energy force of Love that permeates everything and that Stillness holds it all together with a deep peace. I feel happy that I can dialogue with Something more vast than my mind can imagine. If I had to choose just one thing to be thankful for, it would be a growing awareness of the Presence and that I can turn inward at any time to access whatever guidance I need.
This deep sense of gratitude is what is motivates me in this new year and on this special day in which I honor my heart donor, Jody Goetz and her family as well as hold my kidney donor, Jennifer Lund in that gift of a heart. During the holiday season I tended to rail against all of the commercialism, emphasis on gift giving, and seemingly temporary concern with those less fortunate. Now I don’t have to focus on what I don’t like when I can concentrate on what easily pleases me.
I will always be grateful for my parents, heart and kidney transplants, fall, spiritual teachers, an expanding spiritual awareness, and the people who have helped me to remain alive and thrive. I find the love sparks great peace and joy in my heart.
So what’s on your top five list of people, places or events that create a deep sense of gratefulness in you? Can you nurture this spirit in yourself today and maintain during 2017? Will creating an all time gratefulness list and sharing the spirit of gratitude bring you closer to the peace and joy in your heart?
I complete this series on cultivating patience and trust with a lovely prayer by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, SJ. These inspiring words spark a sense of hope in me especially on those days and in those moments when I feel weary on the journey.
Above all, trust in the slow work of God.
We are quite naturally impatient in everything
to reach the end without delay.
We should like to skip the intermediate stages.
We are impatient of being on the way to something
unknown, something new.
And yet it is the law of all progress
that it is made by passing through
some stages of instability—
and that it may take a very long time.
And so I think it is with you;
your ideas mature gradually—let them grow,
let them shape themselves, without undue haste.
Don’t try to force them on,
as though you could be today what time
(that is to say, grace and circumstances
acting on your own good will)
will make of you tomorrow.
Only God could say what this new spirit
gradually forming within you will be.
Give Our Lord the benefit of believing
that his hand is leading you,
and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself
in suspense and incomplete.
—Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, SJ
excerpted from Hearts on Fire.